New law­suit chal­lenges I-70 project

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Jon Mur­ray

A group of com­mu­nity ac­tivists filed an en­vi­ron­men­tal law­suit be­fore a Mon­day dead­line for any re­main­ing le­gal chal­lenges to the $1.2 bil­lion ex­pan­sion of In­ter­state 70 through north­east Den­ver and Aurora.

And late Mon­day, the Sierra Club and sev­eral com­mu­nity groups were ex­pected to file a sep­a­rate law­suit against the I-70 project, based on con­cerns that the ex­panded high­way will vi­o­late fed­eral air-qual­ity rules.

The first law­suit’s fil­ing came with the re­vival of a long­stand­ing claim: that the Colorado De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion and the city of Den­ver ob­scured what the ac­tivists, and even some City Coun­cil mem­bers, see as an ob­vi­ous re­liance by the I-70 project on a sep­a­rate set of city storm-drainage projects called the Platte to Park Hill pro­gram.

City and CDOT of­fi­cials, how­ever, main­tain a more nu­anced po­si­tion. They say CDOT has planned an in­de­pen­dent drainage sys­tem of pipes and re­ten­tion ponds, and it likely would be able to re­duce the size of that sys­tem if the city pro­ceeds with its com­ple­men­tary neigh­bor­hood drainage im­prove­ments.

Re­gard­less, the law­suit con­tends that the years­long en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­view process con­ducted by CDOT for the ur­ban high­way project should have con­sid­ered the ef­fects of the city’s drainage project — and be­cause it didn’t, the re­view failed to cover all of I-70’s drainage needs in the in­ter­est of avoid­ing project de­lays. The suit says both projects will neg­a­tively af­fect nearby low­er­in­come and ma­jor­ity-Latino neigh­bor­hoods, dis­turb con­tam­i­nated soils and pol­lute the South Platte River when runoff from a low­ered sec­tion is chan­neled into it.

“This isn’t our pre­ferred al­ter­na­tive to work against the project,” said ac­tivist Brad K. Evans dur­ing a news con­fer­ence out­side the U.S. Dis­trict court­house in down­town Den­ver.

But the new law­suits are part of a co­or­di­nated, mul­ti­pronged le­gal strat­egy by a wide-rang­ing group of ac­tivists across sev­eral Den­ver neigh­bor­hoods. They join two other pend­ing law­suits against the high­way and city drainage projects.

Op­po­nents’ ef­forts so far have failed to stop them, but back­ers of the new suits say they’re op­ti­mistic.

“This is a boon­dog­gle,” said Evans, flanked at the an­nounce­ment by about 40 com­mu­nity mem­bers, project op­po­nents and a few elected of­fi­cials. “We’re af­ter jus­tice, we’re af­ter trans­parency and we’re af­ter accounting on this project.” In­clud­ing a fu­ture phase, “this is a $2 bil­lion project that’s likely go­ing to cost much, much more.”

His law­suit was filed Sun­day by the Den­ver law of­fice Keat­ing, Wag­ner, Poli­dori and Free. His fel­low plain­tiffs are Kyle Zep­pelin, Kim­berly Morse, Jacqueline Lans­ing and Chris­tine O’Con­nor.

Named as the de­fen­dant is the Fed­eral High­way Administration, which granted fed­eral ap­proval for the I-70 project in Jan­uary. The le­gal fil­ing seeks ju­di­cial re­view of that de­ci­sion. An FHWA spokesman said the agency doesn’t com­ment on lit­i­ga­tion.

CDOT plans to kick off five years of con­struc­tion early next year on the funded first phase of the project, es­ti­mated at $1.2 bil­lion. It calls for the widen­ing of the six-lane free­way be­tween Brighton Boule­vard and Cham­bers Road to add a new man­aged ex­press toll lane in each di­rec­tion. The project would re­place a crum­bling 1.8-mile viaduct with a be­low-grade high­way be­tween Brighton and Colorado boule­vards, through Elyria-Swansea.

Part of that sec­tion would be topped by a 4-acre park­land cap next to Swansea El­e­men­tary, the largest of sev­eral com­mu­nity con­ces­sions of­fered by CDOT.

A state­ment is­sued by CDOT ex­pressed con­fi­dence in its 14-year en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view.

“CDOT is con­fi­dent that our un­prece­dented com­mu­nity outreach process and our thor­ough tech­ni­cal anal­y­sis meet and ex­ceed the stan­dards set by the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act,” Cen­tral 70 project di­rec­tor An­thony De­Vito said. “We be­lieve this process, our anal­y­sis, and this project will stand up un­der the tough­est le­gal scru­tiny.”

That is what CDOT’s work is now likely to get in the courts, and at­tor­ney Melissa Hai­ley said Mon­day that in com­ing weeks she plans to seek an in­junc­tion paus­ing both the high­way and city drainage projects.

“Cities around the county have fig­ured out that 1960sera ur­ban high­ways through mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods are some of the worst plan­ning prac­tices from the last cen­tury,” said Zep­pelin, a devel­oper in Globeville and the River North area. “And now, with a boom­ing econ­omy, it’s time to in­vest in peo­ple and the fu­ture with tran­sit, green in­fra­struc­ture (for storm drainage) and af­ford­able hous­ing.”

Said Jim Alexee, the Colorado chap­ter di­rec­tor for the Sierra Club: “It’s in­cum­bent upon state and fed­eral en­ti­ties to fully ap­pre­ci­ate and honor the ba­sic hu­man right to breathe clean, health­ful air. Nei­ther the state of Colorado nor the fed­eral govern­ment has done so in their plan­ning and ap­proval of Cen­tral 70.”

The Sierra Club’s ex­pected law­suit against the FHWA in­cludes the Elyria and Swansea Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion, the Colorado Latino Fo­rum and the Chaf­fee Park Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion as plain­tiffs. It’s based on air pol­lu­tion con­cerns as well as what the plain­tiffs con­sider CDOT’s in­ad­e­quate con­sid­er­a­tion of an al­ter­na­tive that would re­move I-70 through north­east Den­ver, rerout­ing the traf­fic along in­ter­states 270 and 76 to the north.

CDOT has re­jected that op­tion as un­re­al­is­tic.

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